"I never get those flavors from a wine": That's a common lament I hear from those who enjoy wine but don't feel comfortable describing it.
How can a chardonnay taste like apples and pears, a cabernet sauvignon like blackberries or currants, or Riesling like diesel fuel, for goodness sake?
Although they enjoy wine with dinner, readers tell me they shake their heads at a wine geek's assessment of the myriad flavors coaxed from a glass. Tasting notes should make wine accessible. Often, they reinforce the idea that only experts can truly appreciate the nuances wine has to offer, such as mushrooms and forest floor.
Wine's charm is its limitless variety and its ability to conjure an image or a memory from a simple sniff or sip. To experience this esoteric enjoyment — and to understand why some people are willing to pay a lot of money for a bottle of fermented grape juice — you just need to pay attention to what you're tasting. Wine appreciation is not unlike food appreciation: If you're willing to pay more for organic produce and locally raised meat because they taste better, then why not search out more interesting and complex wines?
My advice for training your palate for wine appreciation is to focus at all times on what you're drinking as well as what you are seeing, smelling and tasting. Most of all, smell everything. But taste with discretion.
When someone describes a New Zealand sauvignon blanc as "cat's pee on a gooseberry bush" (believe it or not, that was a successful marketing slogan at one point), don't hesitate to express a preference for passion fruit over diuretic Kiwi felines. You may not know gooseberries, but you probably have smelled a litter box — and do you really want to drink something with that aroma?
You don't need to know that methoxypyrazines make a cabernet franc taste like bell pepper or a sauvignon blanc like stewed asparagus, but you might want to recognize those flavors and decide whether you like them in your wine. And if your dinner companion credits brettanomyces for that barnyard funk in your Burgundy, feel free to roll your eyes and change the subject. (The anti-social habits of wine nerds are legion.) You can decide for yourself whether you like that yeasty earthiness over clinically clean fruit flavors without knowing what causes it.
Focus on pleasant flavors. If you are not familiar with litchi and different kinds of mangoes, look for those fruits in an Asian grocery, or buy a bottle of their juice and savor it. Walk through your garden after a rain shower and smell the fresh perfume of the flowers and the mineral scent of the newly washed stones. Rub your hand over fresh rosemary, then thyme and lavender; munch a tender tarragon leaf. Go to a spice store and spend an hour sniffing the aromatics.
After I fell in love with wine, I became more aware of the flavors around me, both in my environment and on my dinner plate. My appreciation of food grew along with my desire to try more wines.
Soon, you will recognize distinct flavors in your wineglass as well. And someday you'll walk by a peach tree in bloom and think, "Hmm, viognier."